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Sarah is an important biblical figure in the book of Genesis. She is a wife of Abraham (Gen 11:29) and the mother of Isaac, the second patriarch (“father”) of Israel (Gen 21:2). Yet, she has some rather eyebrow-raising events in her life. She is brought into the house, possibly “harem,” of two foreign rulers (Gen 12:15, Gen 20:2), laughs in anticipation about having sex with her husband in her old age (Gen 18:12), and expels her husband’s son by her slave (Gen 21:10). God changes her birth name from Sarai to Sarah and informs Abraham that her son, Isaac, will inherit God’s covenant (Gen 17:15-19). But Sarah is barren (Gen 11:30), and her slave, Hagar, bears Abraham a child before she does (Gen 16:15). Through it all, Sarah’s relationship with God is what protects her, often when her husband does not.

How does God protect Sarah?

Sarah often moves with her husband, but she always is in God’s camp, and God in hers. She is born in Ur of the Chaldees, moves to Haran and then to Canaan (Gen 11:31-12:5). Abraham takes her to Egypt where she is taken into Pharaoh’s house (Gen 12:15). God plagues Pharaoh’s house because of Sarah (Gen 12:17-19), which is what leads Pharaoh to return Sarah to Abraham, freeing her (Gen 12:20).

Later, back in Canaan, Sarah gives her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that (Gen 16:2-5) she may bear his children and thus fulfill God’s promise of offspring (Gen 12:2, Gen 15:2-6). Sarah argues with Abraham and suggests that God decide between them (Gen 16:5). God changes her name and tells Abraham she will be the mother of the next patriarch, despite the fact that Sarah is old and Abraham already has a son (Gen 17:15-19). God sends messengers to deliver the same message to Abraham, apparently to make sure Sarah hears the news (Gen 18:10). Sarah laughs with joy to herself when she overhears the news (Gen 18:13). Later she is accused of laughing at what God can do and becomes afraid, though the text is not clear if she is afraid of God or Abraham (Gen 18:19). It is hard to imagine God would be mad at her precisely when God sends people to tell her she will have the child she has always wanted. 

After Sarah learns she will have a child with Abraham, another foreign ruler, King Abimelech of Gerar, takes her into his house and again God must save her (Gen 20:2). Sarah then bears her son and says God has brought her laughter (Gen 21:5). Following the celebration when Sarah’s son is weaned, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice when she tells him to banish Hagar and her son (Gen 21:12). Clearly God is Sarah’s advocate.

How can Sarah mistreat Hagar and free her?

Sarah leaves Pharaoh’s house in Egypt with an Egyptian slave, Hagar (Gen 16:1), an ironic twist since later the Israelites will be enslaved in Egypt. After years of not bearing Abraham children, Sarah offers Hagar to Abraham so that she may bear a son for him, and Hagar conceives (Gen 16:6). As a result, Hagar has contempt for Sarah (Gen 16:4), a serious offense in the ancient world. Sarah abuses Hagar (Gen 16:6). Hagar flees (Gen 16:6) and meets an angel of God, who tells her she will have a son who will be named Ishmael (Gen 16:11). The angel sends her back to take abuse from Sarah (Gen 16:9). After Sarah bears her own son, Isaac, tensions arise at Isaac’s weaning ceremony when Hagar’s son “plays” with Isaac (Gen 21:9). The term play is open to interpretation; it can mean anything from boys rough housing to sexual behavior. (The next time the term is used [Gen 26:8] it clearly is sexual because when Abimelech, king of the Philistines, sees Isaac doing this to Rebekah he realizes they are married.) The result is that Sarah demands that Abraham banish Hagar and her son (Gen 21:10). Abraham does so, after God tells him to listen to Sarah; Hagar leaves and experiences great danger, but she survives (Gen 21:10-2). Abraham provides them few supplies leading some to view this as an act of cruelty, though Sarah’s request ultimately frees Hagar.

  • schneider-tammi

    Tammi J. Schneider is a Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. She is the author of Sarah: Mother of Nations (Continuum, 2004) and Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Baker Academic, 2008).